The following is taken verbatim from Greg Prince’s biography David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. It recounts some of President McKay’s concerns with the temple endowment ceremony, particularly with how younger people might interpret it. Ever since the endowment was introduced by Joseph Smith, who adopted many symbols from masonry into it, it has been modified numerous times—usually by removing portions and shortening the ceremony—in order to better accommodate the changing sensibilities of church membership. This excerpt sheds light on the thought process behind some of these changes.
Underlying temple marriage is the core of the temple experience, the endowment. A ritualized depiction of humankind’s journey from the premortal existence through earth life and beyond, McKay referred to it as “one of the most beautiful things ever given to man,” yet lamented that “there are very few people in the Church who comprehend it.”1 He was particularly concerned that the young people in the church, including those participating in the endowment just prior to being married in the temple, did so without comprehending its meaning or being jarred by the symbolism of the ritual. He lamented with his counselors “that many of our young people who go through the Temples gain a wrong impression, that they do not obtain a proper understanding of the Temple work and sometimes lose their faith by reason of the Temple ceremonies.”2
His concern stemmed, in part, from his own first encounter with the endowment ceremony, which had not been favorable. With rare candor, he once spoke of the disappointment of that encounter:
Do you remember when you first went through the House of the Lord? I do. And I went out disappointed. Just a young man, out of college, anticipating great things when I went to the Temple. I was disappointed and grieved, and I have met hundreds of young men and young women since who had that experience. I have now found out why. There are two things in every Temple: mechanics, to set forth certain ideals, and symbolism, what those mechanics symbolize. I saw only the mechanics when I first went through the Temple. I did not see the spiritual. I did not see the symbolism of spirituality. Speaking plainly, I saw men, physical state, which offended me. That is a mechanic of washing…. I was blind to the great lesson of purity behind the mechanics. I did not hear the message of the Lord, “By ye clean who bear the vessels of the Lord.” I did not hear that eternal truth, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” The symbolism was lost entirely…. And so with the anointing, following the washing. Do you see the symbolism?… How many of us young men saw that? We thought we were big enough and with intelligence sufficient to criticize the mechanics of it and we were blind to the symbolism, the message of the spirit. And then that great ordinance, the endowment. The whole thing is simple in the mechanical part of it, but sublime and eternal in its significance.3
By the time McKay became church president, he had over a half-century of experience with the endowment ceremony, and thus was intimately familiar with its mechanics. But his concern with making the symbolic content of the ceremony more accessible to church members, particularly the young people, led him to review again and again the mechanics with the goal “of subordinating the mechanics to the important mission of the Temple, the impressing of each member with the fact that he is an important factor in God’s Plan of Salvation for the human family.”4 Periodic diary entries indicate the intensity with which he approached this task: “My principle purpose in going through [participating in an endowment ceremony] that day was to observe the details of the ceremony and to study the mechanics of the presentation of the endowments.” “Spent most of the day in the Salt Lake Temple considering and studying the Temple Ceremony. Will make recommendations covering several items in the presentation of the Temple Ceremony.” “From 10 o’clock until 2 P.M. I was in the Salt Lake Temple, studying the ceremony for endowments.” “I had planned to drive down to Salt Lake so that I could go to the Salt Lake Temple in order to study and make corrections on the master copy of the endowment ceremony.”5
In 1959, after years of studying the formal procedures of the endowment, he finally introduced changes into the ceremony that would subordinate the physical aspects of the ceremony to the symbolic. Speaking to a group of stake presidents in Ogden, he commented on the alterations. According to the minutes of the meeting, “President McKay then briefly explained the new procedure as helping to overcome the consciousness of the people of the mechanics of the temple service, and in helping young people especially to understand the symbolism and the significance of the service. He briefly reviewed the purpose of the services to show the progress of men from the level of animal interests to spiritual forces which mold eternal life.”6
1David O. McKay Diaries, November 8, 1961.
2David O. McKay Diaries, June 21, 1966.
3Address delivered by David O. McKay at the dedicatory services of the additions to the Arizona Temple, Mesa, Arizona, December 30, 1956, David O. McKay Scrapbooks #162.
4David O. McKay Diaries, December 27, 1957. Because the details of the endowment are considered so sacred that they are covered by a covenant of secrecy made by all parcipants, we provide no description.
5David O. McKay Diaries, March 28, 1951; August 15, 1954; February 2, 1958; July 20, 1958.
6Minutes of a meeting with Presidents of Stakes of Weber County, held in the Ogden Stake Tabernacle, March 2, 1959, David O. McKay Diaries